Flexible, Productive and Collaborative: A Model Hybrid Workplace

This is part of our ongoing series of Field Spotlight Communiques with senior leaders who share successes, challenges, tips and observations for making a successful transition to a hybrid remote workplace.

“Prior to COVID, our employees worked mostly face to face, five days a week. On March 13, 2020, everyone suddenly started working remotely. Today, we have a flexible work model at our organization because we’ve been able to be extremely productive working remotely or in person.”

— Linda Arsenault, Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) for both Sunovion and its affiliate Sumitomo Pharma America Holdings, Inc. (SMPA)

Sunovion Pharmaceuticals Inc. based in Marlborough, MA, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sumitomo Pharma Co., Ltd. based in Japan. Sunovion’s employees advance therapies to tackle some of the most challenging psychiatric and neurological disorders that affect the lives of millions.

As the company’s CHRO, Linda has helped senior leaders, managers and employees to navigate a successful transition to a new flexible work model that enables employees to work wherever they can be most productive, whether at home, in the company’s offices or in the field.

Given the location of company offices in the U.S. and Canada, with their own employment laws, cultures and working norms, Sunovion’s move to a new work model required extensive cross-functional collaboration and buy-in across stakeholder groups.

Here are excerpts from my recent interview with Linda, who offers tips and ideas for organizations striving to create a flexible model that works equally well for employees, managers, and the business overall.

🔹 Before COVID, the organization’s preferred practice for office-based employees was working in the office five days a week, something I hadn’t personally done for at least 15 years before I came to Sunovion. A few years prior to COVID, the company began allowing office-based employees to choose one day a week when they would work from home, but only with their managers’ approval and a mandatory check-in every six months to make sure employees were achieving their performance goals.

🔹 When COVID hit, we moved to an all-virtual workforce literally overnight, both our office and field-based employees. We first imagined it was temporary and then we realized we would need to be working virtually much longer due to the pandemic. By late March 2020, people were forced to adapt to this new way of working.

🔹 Today, we’ve adopted what we call “Our Connected Culture,” which is a new work model that is highly flexible, enabling employees to be productive and collaborative where they work. All of our employees have the tools and resources they need to be productive from wherever they choose to work.

🔹 Fortunately, we had enabling technologies in place at the outset of the pandemic but very few had ever really used Microsoft Teams for meetings, for example, since most of our work had been in person. Today, almost everyone is proficient and confident using our shared virtual communication and collaboration tools, but this didn’t happen overnight. Even though the nature and location of connection points may have changed, today most people say they feel just as connected to each other and to our shared mission and goals as they did prior to COVID.

🔹  In terms of safety protocols and office policies, our primary goal was always keeping employees, contractors, and other stakeholders safe. A COVID core team met frequently to discuss the latest data and make decisions that would keep employees safe, while keeping our business operations running at peak performance. We have captured the successes and learnings from our process and plan to add this to our operating procedures going forward.

🔹 To establish ourselves as a flexible workplace, we had to demonstrate to our parent company that people working from home or the office could be equally productive. Based on our employee surveys and goal tracking, our productivity levels have never been higher. We recently received high participation in an employee survey that showed that overall, employees are embracing and appreciate having this flexibility.

🔹  We continue to work on ways for employees to feel they can continue to build networks and community with their colleagues, and this has included employee engagement events and more in-person team meetings. We are also exploring ways to encourage more breaks in the workday, continue providing wellness opportunities, and creating further guidelines for online meetings, which can often run back-to-back.

🔹 As of today, we have phased out the standard operating procedures for our old “flexible” work policy. Instead of spelling out a formal hybrid remote policy today, we have created guiding principles at a corporate level, which each department or group has translated into team norms that are relevant for their work. For example, teams have norms that define how often they will come together, how they will get their work done, and how they measure successes. Each function, division, team and department has the flexibility to create their own norms. We also provide tools, such as determining whether or not to hold an in-person meeting.

🔹 Lately, we’ve been asking employees to consider coming into the office more often for in person collaboration and connection. Office-based employees maintain an office in our Marlborough location, regardless of how often they work onsite and we also have hoteling options here and in our New Jersey office. Many are making use of our office space for in-person meetings, rather than simply coming into the office to do work they could have done from home, though some do find they can get their everyday work done more easily in the office. When people do come in, it’s usually on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. The cafeteria is open three days a week, and we have an app where people order and pay in advance. Our cafeteria offers to cater onsite meetings to encourage more people to use our facilities, which a nice incentive for people to move more of their meetings onsite.

🔹 If I could give advice to other senior leaders embarking on the transition to a truly flexible workplace, it would be to involve employees in this process, frequently check in with them to ensure they have the necessary tools and resources to remain productive and connected with colleagues, while gauging progress on business objectives to ensure that the business is being optimized and employees are committed, productive and engaged.

The more I speak with senior leaders across all kinds of organizations and industries, the more I realize there’s really no such thing as “best practices” for moving to a flexible work model that can be applied universally. But there are some organizations, like Sunovion, whose practices and policies are so thoughtfully created that they can serve as role model for others to consider adopting and modifying as they see fit.


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